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Trail master

Sylas Wright
Sierra Sun
Courtesy of www.tellitonthemountain.comTruckee resident Scott Williamson takes a break southbound along the Pacific Crest Trail, near Tunnel Falls in Northern Oregon, during his yo-yo hike this past summer.
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Like Forrest Gump ran, Truckee’s Scott Williamson walked ” from Mexico to Canada and back again.

Between May 22 and Nov. 28 Williamson, 34, yo-yoed the Pacific Crest Trail. He’s the only person who can claim such a feat, and he has pulled it off twice now.

“It definitely was a sweeter feeling this time,” said Williamson, who became the first to yo-yo the 2,650-mile trail in 2004, when he completed the round trip in 205 days. “For some reason yo-yoing the PCT was a lot harder this time than the last time, I think because I knew what I was up against.”

The 5,300 miles aside, Williamson was up against the same natural forces and circumstances that commonly thwart thru-hikers’ efforts.

To scratch the surface, Williamson hiked in scorching Southern California heat; trudged through high Sierra snowpack for hundreds of miles; overcame a week-long illness from unfiltered drinking water; toughed out ” then lucked out on his recovery from ” what became a badly infected ingrown toenail; and dealt with the inevitable loneliness that accompanies such a trip.

Though Williamson said his most recent endeavor was more difficult than his first successful attempt ” he failed to yo-yo the PCT three times prior to 2004 because of early-season snow in the Sierra ” he shattered his own record by two weeks, finishing in 191 days.

He credits a slightly tweaked strategy and good fortune for his improved time.

“This time I would do most days with almost no breaks. In 2004 I would sit down and take hour-long lunch breaks,” he said. “My overall pace was slower (this year), but I was walking more miles each day. It was a long, slow approach this time.

“It was kind of a tortoise and the hare effect.”

A tortoise who covered an average of 30 to 40 miles a day walking from the crack of dawn to the last light.

Occasionally Williamson would run, he said, but only if he needed to reach a post office before it closed. On average, he would drop by a post office every three to four days to pick up one of the 52 pre-packed resupply boxes sent by his father or fiancee, Michelle Turley.

By Aug. 18 he had arrived in Canada, marking the halfway point after nearly three months of hiking.

Angela Ballard, editor and publications manager of the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), knows firsthand the difficulty of walking such a distance through the wilderness of the West. She hiked 2,300 miles of the PCT in 2000.

“I think [Williamson’s round trip] is amazing,” she said. “Although he needs the perfect weather conditions to pull it off, that doesn’t take away from the amazing feat of Scott being able to reach Canada and turn around and go back.

“Anyone who has hiked a significant distance is in awe.”

Ballard and Williamson agree that, whether it be next year or sometime down the road, someone else will successfully yo-yo the PCT. That someone may even break Williamson’s time.

“Someone is going to try,” Ballard said. “It’s possible that someone will do it, but I don’t know when.”

Williamson has mastered the art of traveling light, starting with an 8-pound pack, sans food and water. Fully loaded, Williamson’s pack averaged around 20 to 22 pounds, he said.

He also carried a nylon tarp, a Tyvek groundsheet and a homemade sleeping quilt. When the going got chilly late in the fall, he picked up a commercial sleeping bag rated to 5 degrees.

And the guy was hard on shoes, going through 13 pairs before reaching his final destination.

“It’s a little depressing to throw away a pair after only two weeks,” he said.

While traversing the high Sierra northbound, Williamson was forced to deal with snow ” lots of it. From the southern tip of the Sierra to Highway 49 near Sierra City the snow made for slow-going, he said.

That meant wet feet, despite the thick wool socks he wore.

“You could count on your feet being wet all day,” he said, adding that he’d loosen all his laces before going to sleep in case of a freeze. Sometimes it did freeze.

“You just had to rough it out until they thawed out,” he said. “It’s definitely not a comfortable situation.”

Williamson’s breakfast typically consisted of dried fruit and a powder protein shake, he said. For lunch he ate Pro Bars, more dried fruit and “Fig Newton-type bars.”

Dinner is where Williamson got fancy. He would soak dehydrated refried beans in a container, then mix in corn chips and olive oil. In all, he consumed about 2.5 to 3 pounds of food per day, or 3,500 to 4,000 calories, he said.

In an effort to save on weight and time, Williamson took all his drinking water straight from creeks without treating it in any way. It caught up to him while traveling north, as Williamson suffered intestinal problems and cramps for five days between Tuolomne Meadows and South Lake Tahoe.

Normally 190 pounds, Williamson said he weighed 167 when he reached the South Shore. He weighed 180 pounds when he finished the trail.

Weakened by the sickness, Williamson rested for a day in South Tahoe, then took another day off in Truckee to stay at his Glenshire home on June 26. Southbound, he took three days off in Truckee from Oct. 5-8.

“My body was telling me to rest some,” he said.

Perhaps his best fortune of the entire trip arrived by chance in the form of a surgeon he met along the trail.

Williamson developed an ingrown toenail soon after entering Washington on his way north. By the time he had reached southern Washington on his return trip ” some 1,000 miles later ” Williamson’s foot was in bad shape. The ingrown toenail had worsened and he was beginning to develop blood poisoning, he said.

His situation was dire, enough to jeopardize his mission as he considered hitching a ride to a hospital.

Then came the surgeon, a woman who worked in a Seattle-area hospital who happened to be carrying surgical instruments and antibiotics ” and was willing to use them to help out a stranger.

Williamson said he felt nothing in his foot, which had become extremely painful to the touch, as the woman “got in there and dug out the toenail.”

The antibiotics killed the infection, Williamson said, and he was on his way.

Williamson, who has spent much of the past 15 years hiking routes such as the PCT, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, among others, does not mess around when it comes to his hobby.

Turley, an acupuncturist from Truckee, explained why her fiance is so dogged in his pursuit of such an adventurous pastime.

“I think for Scott, it’s his passion and love for nature,” said Turley, whom Williamson proposed to on June 10. “It’s become quite an addiction for him. … He puts his mind to something and he won’t stop until he’s done.”

Williamson broke it down further.

“I think it’s the simplicity of it, living out of a backpack where your only concern is food, shelter and water,” he said. “You’re getting exercise every day and you’re out in nature.”

But why go to such extremes to ditch civilization in exchange months of solitude and tons of walking in some of the country’s most rugged wilderness?

“The biggest drive for me to yo-yo the PCT is the mental challenge of it. Even if everybody and their brother were doing it, it’s the mental challenge of knowing you have to turn around and come back 2,650 miles,” Williamson said. “I tell people 2 percent is physical and 98 percent is mental. You pretty much get up every day and walk”

That’s the part that amazes Ballard, the PCTA editor.

“To thru-hike all the way on your own takes a remarkable ability to endure loneliness and isolation,” she said. “And you must like that. Scott traveled alone for a long time. I think that’s very difficult.”

At times, it was.

“It would be tough sometimes to get yourself going,” Williamson said. “I would try not to think about where I was going. You set micro goals. I rarely thought about my overall goal because that would make me want to quit immediately.”

To battle the loneliness he carried a cell phone and was able to speak with his fiancee when reception allowed.

“We played a lot of phone tag,” Turley said, adding that the longest stretch without talking to each other was 13 days.

Post Labor Day, after the rest of the hiking world had returned to their daily lives, the trail became the most lonely, Williamson said.

“Once Labor Day came and went I wasn’t seeing anybody on the trail,” he said.

“From southern Oregon almost to Truckee I went about 1,000 miles without seeing a single person on the trail. It becomes a ghost town.”

But Williamson was on a mission, one he had completed before and was determined to again.

“It never really gets boring,” he said of the 5,300-mile hike. “There’s always something to keep your mind occupied.”


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